Posner Defends the Electoral College

The ever-iconoclastic Judge Richard Posner has a column in Slate defending the Electoral College. Although the Electoral College is somewhat undemocratic, in that a candidate may win the election without securing a majority of the popular vote, Posner identifies five practical reasons for keeping it in place. I am not sure I agree with all of them. For instance, however much I like my adopted state of Ohio, I am not convinced that we have the most “thoughtful” voters or that the focus on swing states improves the substance of the campaign. On the other hand, I do agree with him that the Electoral College is more likely to produce a certain outcome than the popular vote and, on the margin, does more to encourage candidates to appeal to multiple regions of the country (even if it also encourages pandering to some regional interests). He also notes the Electoral College produces a “majority” winner, whereas the winner of the popular vote often gets less than fifty percent of the vote. In the end, it’s also not much of an argument that the Electoral College is “undemocratic.”

No form of representative democracy, as distinct from direct democracy, is or aspires to be perfectly democratic. Certainly not our federal government. In the entire executive and judicial branches, only two officials are elected—the president and vice president. All the rest are appointed—federal Article III judges for life.

It can be argued that the Electoral College method of selecting the president may turn off potential voters for a candidate who has no hope of carrying their state—Democrats in Texas, for example, or Republicans in California. Knowing their vote will have no effect, they have less incentive to pay attention to the campaign than they would have if the president were picked by popular vote, for then the state of a voter’s residence would be irrelevant to the weight of his vote. But of course no voter’s vote swings a national election, and in spite of that, about one-half the eligible American population did vote in last week’s election. Voters in presidential elections are people who want to express a political preference rather than people who think that a single vote may decide an election. Even in one-sided states, there are plenty of votes in favor of the candidate who is sure not to carry the state. So I doubt that the Electoral College has much of a turn-off effect. And if it does, that is outweighed by the reasons for retaining this seemingly archaic institution.